Life had just begun for 30-year-old Anshul Sharma when was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
Devastated, he saw his dreams crumble. That was when his doctor offered him fertility preservation - with which he could procreate despite his cancer.
"I was completely shattered when I came to know that I had cancer. It is the kind of mindset that we live in - that cancer means the end of the world. But thankfully for me, I went to the right doctor who said that my cancer was curable and that I could opt for the technique before the treatment, so that my chances of having a child did not diminish," Sharma told IANS.
"Let me tell you, it was not an instant 'yay' moment. At that point, four years back, my and my wife's sole concern was to get rid of the disease. We were given the hope to have a normal life once again, and I gave in," he added.
Today, Sharma's cancer is under control, and he hopes to start a family soon.
Cancer patients, mostly the young, are now often given the choice of fertility preservation by their oncologist before they start treatment, so that their chances of having a family does not end with cancer.
According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), there are anywhere between 2.8 to 3 million cancer patients in India.
According to Bhawna Sirohi, head of the medical oncology department in the Artemis Health Institute, while it is not necessary that a person suffering from cancer will not bear a child, and chances are high if he or she is young, the treatment procedure - which may include chemotherapy and radiation - diminishes his or her fertility.
"Chemotherapy and radiation affect the sperm count and egg production in men and women respectively, and hence patients run the risk of infertility, post-the treatment. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that a doctor offers fertility preservation to a patient before starting the treatment," Sirohi told IANS.
"It becomes even more important to offer the choice when a patient is young and has the desire to the start a family," she added.
The issue becomes even more important considering that younger people are increasingly diagnosed with cancer, said B.N. Das, a senior gynae-oncology consultant.
"Figures show that 8 to 10 percent of cancer patients these days are below the age of 40. Cancer in this reproductive age is a matter of great concern for both the patient and the doctor. To deal with the double whammy of cancer and then possible infertility, fertility preservation is important," Das said.
In case of men, the procedure constitutes sperm cryopreservation - when the sperms are frozen for an indefinite period. They are advised abstinence from sexual activity three days before the procedure.
"It's much easier in men than in women. In women, when the ovary has to be stimulated to produce eggs, the process can delay the treatment by four to six weeks," Sirohi said.
"That long a delay in serious cases, like blood cancer, when even 24 hours can mean a lot, is not advisable. In that case, another procedure, which involves cutting a part of the ovary to harvest eggs, is the best option," she added.
Asma Khan is a 33-year-old business executive who was detected with breast cancer last year. Doing well professionally, with no plans to get married as yet, cancer changed the course of her life.
"But I was not one of those to give up. My life had to be planned carefully, to give myself the best chance. And that included getting married and having kids. My doctor told me about fertility preservation and after discussing it with my boyfriend, I went ahead," Khan said.
Six weeks later, she started her chemotherapy session.
Doctors however advise not to go for a child for at least two years after the cancer has been controlled because chances of recurrence during this period is high.
"One of my young patients was heartbroken when she came under the double whammy of ovarian cancer and the risk of infertility. Fortunately, her cancer was in the early stage and she went for fertility preservation. Today, her cancer is under control and she is the proud mother of a baby boy," Das said.
"Every week, I get young patients and, depending on the case, I offer them fertility preservation. Oncologists must make it a point to discuss these things with their patients and give them the hope to live a 'normal' life once again," Sirohi added.
(Azera Parveen Rahman can be contacted at [email protected]